Age-Specific or “Underage” Alcohol Prohibition: A Civil Rights Issue

Age-specific or “underage” alcohol prohibition: A civil rights issue

 March 28, 2013

The United States currently has the highest nationwide drinking age in the entire world, which it shares with only several non-Western heavily Islamic countries. Attempting to prevent people from drinking until the age 21 is an aberration both in U.S. history and internationally.

National Prohibition (1920-1933) was a disaster, but at least it was not discriminatory; no one of any age could legally buy beverage alcohol. Our current age-specific alcohol prohibition discriminates against Americans who are legally and socially adults at age 18. We permit persons at the age of 12 to hunt wildlife with a deadly weapon but prohibit adults age 20 to sip a beer. We let them drive a motor vehicle at age 16 and a military tank at age 18, but prohibit them from relaxing with a drink at age 20.

We’re all familiar with the litany of things Americans can legally do at age 18. Among other freedoms, they can vote, serve on juries, hold public office, serve in the military, marry, adopt children, own businesses, employ other people, enter into legal contracts, sue others, be sued, be imprisoned, own and drive motor vehicles, own and fly airplanes, purchase pornography, perform in pornographic films, give legal consent for sexual intercourse, have abortions, and otherwise conduct themselves as the adults they are. But they can’t legally have a sip of champagne to celebrate their own weddings.

Prohibiting persons under the age of 21 to enjoy alcohol is a civil rights issue. As the public becomes aware of the injustice of this age discrimination, they will come to call for its elimination. It will take time, just as it has taken time to raise awareness necessary to fight discrimination against race, gender, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, disabilities, and other social categories. Those who support this current unjust discrimination are on the wrong side of the issue, as history will someday demonstrate.

People of any age who have alcohol and drug problems often suffer discrimination and are sometimes subjected to harsh treatment methods. The typical alcohol or drug rehab is dehumanizing. After he left the Betty Ford Center, the actor Chevy Chase reported that he had often been angry at the counselors, who “heckled the residents mercilessly, constantly denigrating them and claiming they had been living worthless lives.”

Rehab residents are usually told that they are powerless over alcohol, that they are addicts and always will be, that they must admit that they are suffering an incurable disease, that they must submit to the will of God or a Higher Power, and other cult-like beliefs. They are often told that they must dissociate with their family and friends who drink or use substances, that they should attend Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous for friendship and support, and otherwise become more dependent on support groups.

Although such indoctrination is undesirable and generally unhelpful for older adults, it can be especially damaging to teens and young adults. This is illustrated by the story of one young woman who was placed into several rehabs at the age of 14 because she had consumed alcohol three times and used marijuana twice. Her denial of drinking any other time in her life was taken as “proof” that she was alcoholic.

She was discharged from the first center because she would not admit that she was an alcoholic and then sent to another facility to help her “break through her denial.” There, she was told that she couldn’t go home until he admitted that she was alcoholic and also agreed to go to AA meetings upon her release.

Unsure of her identity and subjected to intense social pressure, she began to believe that she was wrong and that she was an alcoholic. She began to think that maybe the reason she couldn’t remember using on other occasions was because she must have been having blackouts. She then agreed to attend AA, which she did from age 14 to age 26.

Nevertheless, she harbored a nagging doubt that she was actually alcoholic. In her mid-twenties she developed the courage to question what had happened to her and other adolescents. Asking questions is not tolerated in AA, so she began secretly to learn about the diagnostic criteria for alcohol abuse and dependence. She discovered that she met absolutely none of the criteria. After doing more research, she left AA at the age of 26.

It should be obvious that forcing anyone into rehab is nothing short of abuse and can cause permanent damage. If a young person has alcohol or drug problems, highly effective help is available for them if they wish it of their own free will. The non-coercive, non-12-step, non-religious St. Jude Program is highly effective, but will not accept anyone against their will. In addition, all participants have complete freedom to leave at any time for any reason whatsoever.

The time is long overdue for all young people of every age to be treated with respect. Nothing less is acceptable.